Most of you will remember having seen, at some stage, an article or a book or a hymn by a certain Mr. John Nelson Darby. Some may even have his 40+ volume collection at home.
Mr. Darby in the Papers
Why, then, are so many people suddenly speaking about him? The French newspaper "Le Monde" mentioned him, and he is no longer a stranger to the pages of "Business Week" and "Time" magazines. His name is beginning to emerge in the media in European countries and elsewhere. Some call him a "19th century Anglican heretic," some the "Founding Father of Christian Fundamentalism," and the terms used by some to describe Mr. Darby are so derogatory that I prefer not to repeat them here. Others make him responsible for the war in Iraq. "John Nelson Darby has a big influence on George Bush," they say, "and on millions of Americans, and on the course of world history." Why?
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) spent his life studying the Bible and spreading the truth. In his time, conferences took place and biblical doctrine was examined. Many devoted much time and energy to intense study. With prayer and in dependence on the Lord they searched the Scriptures – and God answered. Thus it happened that a series of biblical truths were rediscovered. Among them were, in particular, the following:
- Many prophecies in the Old Testament refer to Israel and to the geographic location known as Israel in a literal way (and not to the church in some "spiritualized" figurative way).
- The biblical promises for Israel are for the earth, whereas the church possesses heavenly blessings and a heavenly calling.
- The Lord Jesus will return, and may return any time now, to take the believers to Himself (the "rapture").
- The doctrine of "dispensations" (different consecutive periods, which always start with failure and end in judgment). The "rapture" will end the current "dispensation." Then the prophetic clock will start ticking again and the seven year tribulation period will begin. After that will come the appearing of Christ in power.
J. N. Darby demonstrated that one needs to take into account the dispensations in order to understand the Bible properly, especially prophecy and the truth of the church. His teaching became widespread. A movement that became very influential, especially in America, and which essentially builds on Mr. Darby’s rediscoveries, is now known as "dispensationalism." A series of books, published in multi-million editions, contributed their part to the spreading of these truths (with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy). It is estimated today that 20-40 million Americans subscribe to dispensational teaching.
What does all this have to do, then, with the present situation in the Middle East? Why are big newspapers getting interested? And is this good news?
Is this good news?
Let’s take the last question first. You may be disappointed to know that it is not good news at all for Bible believing Christians, but rather an attack on them and their faith and, ultimately, on their Lord. In a nutshell, this is how the attack works:
Darby taught, so they say (correctly), that the Bible is to be taken literally and that it predicts future events, especially the return of the Jews to the land of Israel (remember that the modern state of Israel was founded only in 1948), and the battle of Armageddon1 (this is the battle, which will take place, probably in the area of Haifa in northern Israel, when the Lord Jesus returns to the earth in power). Further, they argue (still correctly), that Darby taught that the believers would be "raptured" seven years before this battle. But then they assert (wrongly), that Christians who are faithful to the Bible – especially those who follow Mr. Darby’s teachings – therefore try to accelerate the battle of Armageddon or even to force it through a war in the Middle East.
This might appear absurd to any believer who has even only a faint idea of what Mr. Darby actually taught. The Lord Jesus said clearly that the Father has "placed in his own authority" the timing of these events (Acts 1:7). How absurd to think that the Lord’s return to take us could be accelerated by starting or supporting a war!
Is the attack entirely unfounded?
Sadly not. In fact, various groups of Christians have, again and again, stood up to support Israel and the settlements of Jews in Biblical "Israel," partly through financial support and partly through collaboration with conservative Jews. In this way, a powerful movement (Christian Zionism) was formed.
Such initiatives may be well meant. But now we see how easily they can backfire and become counterproductive. They achieve the opposite of what they intended and give lots of ammunition to those who oppose the Christian faith. These opponents can now point out (sadly, not wholly without basis) that Christians are trying to "help" fulfill the prophecies. First, through their support (at the time) for the establishment of the State of Israel, and now through their desire to provoke an "Armageddon."
This is exactly what Darby never taught. First, because he insisted that Christians have a heavenly calling and should not get involved in earthly things, especially in politics. Second, he insisted, again and again, that Christians should wait directly and constantly on their Lord (already those alive then in Thessalonica2). But this seems to be forgotten easily, or conveniently, by Mr. Darby’s modern accusers. So it is claimed that Christians would welcome an "Armageddon," because,
- they would disappear before it happens, therefore,
- the earlier this happens, the earlier they will be transported to heaven, and
- "their Jesus" would then set up His Kingdom.
This is how today’s reporters, theologians, and politicians put it.
With this line of argument, those who oppose the Bible have enough fuel for the fire. Suddenly Christians are dangerous. Not the nominal ones, of course, but those who believe that the Bible is inspired and actually means what it says.
What is behind the attack?
In the final analysis it is an attack against the truth. At last a good reason has been found to take action against it. The truth has been uncomfortable for a long time. Why? Well, there are a number of Biblical facts which people do not want to know:
- the depravity of man (this is the central point in the doctrine of "dispensations," that each time, it "goes wrong" and ends with judgment)
- the coming judgment of God
- the authority of the Bible
- the necessity of the work of redemption (on the basis of which some will be spared judgment and will be "raptured," whereas those not accepting it will be judged).
The deepest reason motivating this attack, of course, is hatred against Christ Himself.
What can we do?
How can we react when faced with these changes in our society? One possibility (and we realize that some will opt for it) is to resort to relativism by conceding that the Bible only means what you want it to mean, and only if acceptable to the majority. As soon as we subject the Bible to science and philosophy, they will leave us in peace. For any who wish to remain faithful to the Lord, this is not an option.
On the other hand, one could be overly worried or return fire through various kinds of initiatives in order to try to "fight our corner" in a political way. But the Bible does not ask us to do this. However, here are a few ideas on how we could and should react:
- We should impress upon ourselves that the Bible has been inspired, verbally3, and is the unerring word of God, whose predictions will be fulfilled.
- We should not interfere with the events of this world. We can observe them, and do so with the assurance that the Lord will return. Then there will be a sudden end to the opposition (which is certainly going to increase).
- We remember that these events — tribulation, Armageddon, etc. — will certainly happen, but only after the rapture. Therefore, we do not try to interpret current events as fulfilled prophecy4.
- We do not pretend to know dates and times which are not revealed in the Bible.
We can take this opportunity as an occasion to have a look at some of Mr. Darby’s books and articles and try to work out what he actually did say. If someone wants to start with a smaller and not-so-difficult-to-understand booklet, you can order a copy of the pamphlet, What Do I Learn from the Scripture.
Here is a little "taster:" "I learn
- that they [believers] are converted to wait for God's Son from heaven
- that Christ will come again to receive us to Himself
- that God has appointed a day in which He will judge this habitable world in righteousness by that man whom He has ordained"
This is not that difficult to understand, after all, is it?
- We should ask ourselves whether we would be ready, should the opposition against the truth increase, to endure disadvantages because of it.
- We should concentrate more on our heavenly calling and on the gospel, the good news, which people need so urgently.